organisations, movements and members

Types of religious organisations

Church and sect (Troeltsch)

  • Churches are large organisations, often with millions of members, run by a bureaucratic hierarchy of professional priests, who also claim monopoly of truth. They’re universalistic, aiming to include the whole of society, although they tend to be more attractive to the higher classes because they’re ideologically conservative and are often closely linked to the state.
  • Sects are small, exclusive groups. They’re hostile to wider society and they expect a high level of commitment. They draw the poor and oppressed and are led by charismatic leaders. They too believe they have monopoly of truth

Denomination and cult

  • Niebuhr (1929) describes denominations as lying midway between churches and sects, membership is less exclusive than sects but they don’t appeal to the whole of society. They also accept societies values like churches but aren’t linked to the state, and while they impose minor restrictions they aren’t as demanding as sects. Unlike both churches and sect, they do not claim monopoly of truth.
  • Cults are highly individualistic, loose-knit and are usually small group based around a shared interest, but aren’t based around a specific belief system. They’re usually led by ‘practitioners’ or ‘therapists’ who claim special knowledge, like denominations they’re tolerant of other organisations. Cults don’t demand a strong commitment from followers they may have further involvement with the cult once they have acquired the beliefs or techniques it offers.
  • Wallis (1984) highlights two characteristics of similarities and differences: how they see themselves (churches and sects claim that their interpretation of the faith is the only legitimate or correct one, whereas denominations and cults accept that there can be many valid interpretations) and how they’re seen by wider society (churches and denominations are seen as respectable and legitimate, whereas sects and cults are seen as deviant).
  • Sociologists argue that some of the above descriptions of religious organisations do not fit today’s reality. E.g. in today’s society churches are no longer churches as they have lost their monopoly of truth (due to diversity etc)

New religious movements (Wallis)

  • World-rejecting NRMs:  examples include the Manson family, Children of God and the People’s Temple. Characteristics include:  clear religious belief with a clear notions of God, highly critical of the outside world and seek radical change, they desire to achieve salvation, members live communally and they often have conservative moral codes.
  • World-accommodating NRMs: breakaways from existing mainstream churches or denominations (e.g. neo-Pentecostalists). They neither accept nor reject the world, and they focus on religious rather than worldly matters, seeking to restore the spiritual purity of religion.
  • World-affirming NRMs: they lack conventional features of religion such as collective worship and aren’t highly organised. However they do offer their followers access to spiritual of supernatural powers. Characteristics include: optimistic view of the world as a whole, non-exclusive and are tolerant of other religions, most are cults whose followers are often customers rather than members with training and little demands on their life
  • It is not clear whether Wallis categorising them according to the movements or individuals beliefs
  • He also ignores the diversity of beliefs within NRMs
  • Useful in analysing and comparing the significant features of NRMs

Sects and cults

  • Stark and Bainbridge identify two kinds of organisation that are in conflict with wider society:
  • Sects result from schisms (splits in existing organisations), they break away from churches usually because of disagreements about doctrine
  • Cults are new religions e.g. scientology
  • Sects are seen to have other-worldly benefits (e.g. a place in heaven) to those suffering economic deprivation or ethical deprivation, whereas cults have this-worldly benefits to more prosperous individuals who are suffering from psychic deprivation (normlessness) and organismic deprivation (health problems)
  • Stark and Bainbridge subdivide cults according to how organised they are: Audience cults (least organised, do not involve formal commitment with little interaction between members), Client cults (based on the relationship between a consultant and client, provides services to their followers) and Cultic movements (most organised and demand a high level of commitment, movements aims to meet all members religious needs and rarely allow their followers to be a part of other religious movements as well)

Explaining the growth of religious movements


  • Weber notes how sects tend to arise in groups who are marginal to society (groups who feel as if they’re deprivileged), sects therefore offer a solution to this problem by offering their members a theodicy or deprivilege (a religious explanation and justification for their suffering) – this may prove their suffering to be a test of faith etc.
  • Historically, many sects have recruited from the marginalised poor, however since the 1960s sects like world-rejecting NRMs have recruited from more middle class groups.

Relative deprivation

  • Refers to the subjective sense of being deprived, it is possible therefore for a privileged person to feel that they’re deprived in some way (e.g. spiritually deprived)
  • Stark and Bainbridge argues that relatively deprived people break away from churches to form sects and safeguard the original message that had since been lost in the church
  • Stark and Bainbridge argues that world-rejecting sects offer the deprived the compensators that they need for the rewards they’re denied, therefore the privileged are attracted to world-accepting churches that express their status and bring them to further success.

Social change

  • Wilson (1970) argues that periods of rapid change disrupt and undermine established norms and values produce anomie. In response to the uncertainty that is created, those who are most affected may turn to sects.
  • Bruce (1996) sees the growth of sects and cults today as a response to the social changes involved in modernisation and secularisation. People are less attracted to mainstream, traditional religion and more to sects.
  • World-rejecting NRMs: Wallis points to social changes from the 1960s impacting on young people, gave them freedom from adult responsibilities and enabled a counter-culture to develop. Also the growth of radical, political movements offered alternative ideas about the future- world-rejecting NRMs offered young people a more idealistic way of life.
  • World-affirming NRMs: Bruce argues that their growth is a response to modernity, especially to the rationalisation of work. Work no longer provides meaning or a source of identity, therefore world-affirming NRMs provide both a sense of identity and techniques that promise success in this world.

The dynamics of sects and NRMs

  • Niebuhr (1929) argues that sects are world-rejecting organisations that come into existence because of schisms – splitting from an established church because of a disagreement over religious doctrine. He argues that they’re short lived (compared to churches) which either die out within a generation out abandon their views and become a denomination. There are several reasons for this: the second generation (those who are born into a sect lack the belief of their parents), the ‘Protestant ethic’ effect (followers who attend sects that practise asceticism leave due to the prosperity of the sect) and the Death of a leader (sects with charismatic leaders will become a denomination after being taken over by bureaucratic leadership)
  • Stark and Bainbridge (1986) see religious organisations as moving through a cycle, the first stage is schism where there’s tension in those who attend church but do not feel their needs being satisfied causing the deprived will break away and create world-rejecting sects. The second stage is of initial fervour with a charismatic leader and tensions between the sect and wider society, stage three consists of denominationalism (as seen above in Niebuhr’s explanation) with the second generation/death of a leader/the ‘Protestant ethic’ effect. Stage four, establishment, sees the sect becoming more world-accepting with reduced tension and the final stage, further schism, results when less privileged members break away to found a new sect
  • Wilson (2008) argues that not all sects follow the sectarian cycle and denomination or death. ‘Conversionist’ sects aims to convert large numbers of people so are therefore likely to grow rapidly into formal denominations, however ‘Adventist’ sects believe they must hold themselves separate from the corrupt world which prevents them from becoming denominations. He also argues that there have been many sects that have survived, turning into established sects. Contrary to Niebuhr’s beliefs this is due to the success in socialising the second generation. However, Wilson admits that globalisation will make it more difficult in future for sects to survive, but will make recruitment easier.

The growth of the New Age

  • The New Age covers a range of beliefs and activities that have been widespread since the 1980s, many of them are extremely diverse and eclectic (putting unconnected things together in new combinations) e.g. belief in UFOs/tarot cards. Heelas (1996) believes that there are two common themes that characterise the New Age: self-spirituality (seeking spirituality and turning away from traditional religions) and detraditionalisation (valuing personal experiences not a spiritual deity). Heelas argues also that most New Age beliefs offer both world-affirming and world-rejecting aspects.

Postmodernity and the New Age

  • Drane (1999) argues that the appeal of the New Age is due to the shift towards the postmodern society, the loss of faith causes those to become disillusioned with the churches failure so turn to the New Age so we can find the truth
  • Bruce (1995) argues that the increase of New Age support is actually due to the modern society, the individualism promoted is supported by New Age principles. Also, he argues that the beliefs of the New Age are ‘softer’ versions of traditional religions, this is more appealing to Westerners
  • Heelas (1996) sees the New Age and modernity to be linked in 4 ways: a source of identity (the different roles of modern society create a fragmented identity so the New Age offers a source of ‘authentic’ identity), consumer culture (New Age offers an alternative view of perfection that isn’t created as promised in modern society), rapid social change (New Age provides a norm to the disrupted norms of modern society) and decline of organised religion (modernity leads to secularisation which gets rid of the competition of the New Age)

Religiosity and social groups

Gender and religiosity

  • There are clear differences between gender differences and religiosity in the UK: most churchgoers are females who outnumber males by almost half a million, more women than men (55% vs 44%) say they’re religious, more women than men (38% vs 26% say that religion is important to them.

Reasons for gender differences

  • Miller and Hoffman explain that there’s 3 reasons for women’s higher levels of religiosity: risk taking (men are more likely to take the risk of not bring religious and potentially going to hell etc), socialisation (women are socialised to be more religious as they’re socialised to be more obedient, passive and caring what religion values) and gender roles (as women aren’t as likely to be in full-time work as men they have more time to participate in religious organisations). Davie (2013) argues that women are more conscious of religion due to their roles close to child birth and caring for the elderly which brings them closer to the ‘ultimate questions’
  • Bruce (1996) argues that women’s religiosity is a result of their lower levels of involvement in paid work, religion has recently been adopted into the private sphere of the home (due to secularisation) so women have more time to follow religion. As religion has become privatised therefore, men’s religiosity to declining quicker than women. Despite the decline overall, religion also remains more attractive to women due to: the feminisation of the church (due to the low attendance of men) and women sharing the traits valued at church
  • Women also share an attraction to the more individualistic/spiritual side of the New Age than men (as they’re more often associated with nature and healing) as well as how the New Age emphasises the importance of being ‘authentic’ rather than acting (gender roles). The private sphere of the family allows women to be more expressive in their roles (rather than the conflict of masculinised instrumental at work as well as expressive at home), the New Age beliefs allow women to bypass the role conflict and create their own ‘inner self’. Class differences seen in religion are bypassed in the New Age, lower class women are attracted to this through the idea that it gives them a passive role.
  • Bruce (1996) estimates that there are twice as many women involved in sects that men.  Sects act as compensator to relative deprivation, deprivation is seen more commonly in women. Organism deprivation stems from how women are more likely to be mentally or physically ill so seek the help of sects, ethical deprivation portrays how women are more morally conservative so would regard the world to be in moral decline and turn to sects. Social deprivation explains how women are most likely to be poor and the poor are attracted to sects
  • Pentecostalism has grown in recent years, but is generally seen to be patriarchal based due to how the heads of the church are men. However, women are also attracted to it (Pentecostal gender paradox) this is due to how Pentecostalism require an ascetic way of life and also requires men to be bread-winners. Pentecostal women can use these ideas to combat a widespread culture of machismo in Latin America when men are told to ‘buck-up’ and care for their families. For western Pentecostal women liberation isn’t seen as men retain their headship role in the family.

Ethnicity and religiosity

  • The UK is now seen as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. This means that there are vast, varying differences in religious participation patterns, for example black people are twice as likely to attend church that white people, or how they’re also more likely to be involved in the Pentecostal church than whites.

Reasons for ethnic differences

  • Bruce (2002) argues that religion offers support and a sense of cultural identity, this becomes especially relevant in uncertain or hostile environments. For example, Bird (1999) notes that religion can hold community solidarity to the minorities who are poor and oppressed.
  • Religion can also be used as a means into easing the transition into a new culture by providing support and a sense of community. Herberg (1955) shows that high levels of religious participation is seen in first-generation immigrants.
  • Pryce’s (1979) study of the African Caribbean community in Bristol shows both cultural defence and cultural transition have been important. Pentecostalism helped African Caribbean’s to adapt to British society as it encouraged its members succeed by encouraging self-reliance. It gave people mutual support and hope of improving their situation.

Age and religious participation

  • The older a person is, the more likely they are to attend religious services. However there is an exception with under 15s who are most likely to attend religious services than those above them due to their parents.

Reasons for age differences

  • Voas and Crockett (2005) suggest 3 possible explanations for age differences in religiosity: the ageing effect (the view that we approach religion more when we get old due to the spiritual matters of death), the period or cohort effect (people born during a particular period may be more or less likely to be religious due to events they’ve lived through) and secularisation (as religion declines in importance, each generation becomes less religious than the one before it). Secularisation is seen as the main explanation of age difference in religiosity.